There's a scientific reason why people can never admit they're wrong

One of my many personality flaws is my powerful belief in the fact that I am right.

Seriously, it's almost an issue. I spend way too much time frothing in disbelief at tweets from the Flat Earth Society, when they call people who believe in science "globeheads". I tweet them pictures and proofs the planet is indeed spherical, sound in the knowledge I am achieving absolutely nothing.

I will demand information from a Mumbai call centre I know they cannot give, just because I think they should be able to. I will thrash about in outrage at the words of people of different political persuasions to me while cooing with satisfaction at the creamy soothing notions of my right-thinking (er, left-thinking) comrades.

I just can't believe the right believe what they believe – just like a red-faced, assault-rifle waving Trump supporter from Alabama can't believe I believe what I believe.

The pleasurable debate

We are all drenched in confirmation-bias, eagerly lapping up those views that conform with our own, and refusing to even look at an idea that conflicts with our cosy world-view.

Our brains give us a yummy rush of dopamine – pleasure – every time we see data that confirms the things we believe. It, literally, feels good.

That's why Twitter, especially, is a war-zone of words. No matter how brilliant or elegant your 280 characters, you're not changing anyone's mind. That's the nature of belief. Yet we all keep trying. (I have a folder of pictures showing the Earth's curvature.)

Why is this so? The answer is, as always, in the science.

Abandoning logic

A famous Stanford University study from the 1970s, based on impressions of real and bogus suicide notes, shows perfectly rational people will hold on to wildly irrational beliefs, even when presented with evidence which debunks it.


Even though their "belief has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs," the researchers noted. The notion people can't think straight was weird in the 1970s. In 2018, it's not.

In a new book, The Enigma of Reason, Harvard scientists Mercier and Sperber say our biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Reason developed, not to help us solve abstract, logical problems but to help us fix the issues that might threaten our collaborative groups. Thinking habits that might seem goofy or dumb from a purely "intellectual" point of view, make sense from a social perspective. There's benefit in thinking the same things as our friends.

Reason developed so we could all live together in harmony.

The good ol' days

When we sat around in caves, we had to be good at winning arguments to make sure everyone pulled their weight in the co-operative group. Who would want to risk their life for dinner while some other guy sat around the fire, chatting to the women?

But now, our reason is failing us. It's up to the task of tribe campfire discussions but not the extreme demands of instant information, fake news, Trump and Twitter. We just can't keep up.

There is also the "illusion of explanatory depth," according to cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach in their book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. We believe we know more about how things work than we do. We're reading the headline on facebook, forming an opinion but not even reading the story.

Localised expertise

Think about how a toilet works. You might think you know, but unless you're a plumber, you probably don't. But plumbers do, and we trust that they do. We can't know everything. We've been replying on each others' expertise since we were chasing woolly mammoths across the tundra. We don't know where our understanding ends and that of others begins.

Incomplete understanding is actually empowering to a society. If everyone who used a knife had to be a metalworker, the Bronze Age would never have happen.

But the result of the same phenomena in the modern era is strange aberrations, like the persistent belief that immunisation causes autism, despite the original flawed study that suggested that being repeatedly shot down. Science is good at fixing its incorrect assumptions. We're not.

Stubborn without a cause

The data says handguns don't make you safer, yet millions of Americans buy handguns for "safety".

Strong feelings do not come from deep understanding, unfortunately. It's how we're wired up. It is a psychological fact that sticking to our guns feels good.

Perhaps we can make more sense of the world if we understand all the shouting and fighting is because our reason has failed us, and we're actually trying to worship in the church of our own belief group.

Damn straight, I hear you say, you people are nuts! But perhaps it might be a good idea to look in the mirror and see our own refusal to accept perfectly sensible points of view, even though it might not match our own.

It might make the world a little nicer and all of us a little smarter.

I know I'm right.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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Do you struggle to admit you're wrong? Tell us how right you are in the comments section below.